tv [untitled] March 4, 2012 10:00pm-10:30pm EST
online at c-span.org/local content. you're watching american history tv. all weekend, every weekend on c-span 3. this week, american history tv visits museums and historic places to learn what artifacts can reveal about the history of the united states. next, a visit to the first lady's exhibit at the smithsonian's national museum of american history. >> lisa kathleen graddy is the curator for political women's history here at the smithsonian. tell us where we're at. >> you're in the first ladies exhibit. welcome to the newest addition of the exhibit. by my count it's the nine version of the first lady's exhibit since it began in 1913. we're almost 100 years old. we're the longest lived exhibit at the smithsonian institution.
>> and this iteration just opened up. tell us the concept behind it. >> we tried a few new things. the challenge of the first ladies exhibit is always to balance. to balance the great interest in the dresses and the china with other kinds of stories about the first ladies. we're always trying to find a way -- i say marry. but to marry the two things so that you get a fuller picture of the first ladies but still get to see the things you really want to see which are the beautiful dresses and the lovely china. so we tried a different arrangement in here. partially that's the color scheme. this is the first time we've used this palette of grays and whites. the idea was to make the objects stand out. we really highlight the gowns and the china, for the first
time really make them the star. >> talk more about the history of the first ladies exhibit. in your role, your responsibility in creating this latest addition. >> the first ladies collection began in 1913 by two volunteer curators. mrs. hugh and mrs. james, washington socialites who had an in at the smithsonian. they wanted to put women at the smithsonian. there really weren't exhibitions dedicated to women. so they started really a costume collection. the idea was to show women's costume throughout time. but mrs. hues happened to be a descendant of james monroe. a hook was born. we'll use the first ladies. they thought out the descendents of the presidents and first ladies and asked for clothing. by the time they opened the show, they amassed a pretty good amount. by 1932 they had something to represent every former first lady. but it did create what i call the smithsonian's definition of
first lady. which is not necessarily the spouse, the wife of the president. it's the person who played the official role of white house hostess. so that can be -- usually it's a wife. but it can be a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a niece, a family friend. and it's been all of those things over time. and the exhibition was actually called -- featuring the clothing of the mistresses of the white house. >> there are some examples in this exhibit today of those that weren't the spouse of the president. talk about them. >> yes. as i look behind me to see who's in this particular exhibition or in that case, this case is mostly -- is mostly wives. but in the china and in the back section where we'll do case studies of first ladies you'll see dolly madison. dolly madison served as first lady for the widowed thomas jefferson. he also -- his daughter would also serve as his hostess periodically. but so did mrs. madison who is his -- the secretary of state's wife. because in mixed company at the
time, you had to have a hostess. you could not entertain ladies unless there was a hostess. there was a real need to have a woman in the white house to perform that function. so much -- even now, so much of washington life is carried on not on the floor of the house, not on the floor of the senate, not in official places but at parties. informal gatherings where you can talk in a calmer, more casual manner. so the first lady helps -- all the women of washington really were responsible for keeping those networks open and that life happening. >> is that sort of the point of showing the dress? that there's much more meaning behind the dress? >> there is more meaning behind the dress. one we show it because it's beautiful and people love them. it does say something about the woman. there's a real question. why do we care? why are we interested in what the first lady wears other than if you're just a fan of fashion? why do we care what the first
lady wears? but we look to her clothing for clues about what she's like as a person, about what the administration may be like both in its style, is it formal, is it informal? is it extravagant? is it simple? and what their -- possibly something about her politics or the administration's politics. is it american made? do you proudly say that you only wear american designers and american-made clothing? carolyn harrison, the end, the beautiful burgundy gown, made a point of only wearing american fabrics and american-made clothes. a lot of first ladies have worn american clothing. if you look to the back you'll see a beautiful dress of eleanor roosevelt that's actually her first inaugural gown. eleanor roosevelt had a busy life. she made a point of saying busy women also like to buy their clothes off the rack. she also stressed that it would -- you shouldn't buy clothes from sweat shops. her politics also came into her clothing. >> what is the oldest gown?
>> the oldest gown in the collection is martha washington's. it isn't on display now. it has been on display for a sustained amount of time. it's having a rest right now. in this gallery when we round the corner, the oldest dress will be dolly madison. >> fast forward to today, michelle obama, she donated hers personally? >> actually mrs. obama came and prebted the dress, the jewelry and the shoes. they were actually donated. she -- it's interesting. this is the first time we had the designers donate. mrs. obama had them donate these pieces. so jason wu and jimmy choo and lori rodkin donated the pieces. when you see the pieces it will be donated by jason wu in honor of first lady michelle obama. mrs. obama came to present the pieces to the museum. >> what are goes into deciding which dress to wear and are they thinking about the influence that will have on their husband's administration?
>> i think we'd like it to maybe be a little more political than it probably is. when we did -- there's a video playing in this exhibition. we were lucky enough to interview rosalin carter and laura bush about the dresses they chose thinking maybe there was a symbolism. mrs. carter in reality for sentimental reasons wore a dress again she has worn when her husband was made governor of georgia. and mrs. bush just remembers collaborating with the designer, michael faircloth. and wanted a pretty party dress. i think what women -- the first lady wants it to be beautiful. she wants it to be comfortable. she wants it to be appropriate. i think appropriate is the word when first ladies are dealing with clothes. they want to be appropriate for the occasion, appropriate for their age, appropriate for the circumstance and, i think, appropriate as a symbol of the
united states. because we still do look at the first lady as representing women in the united states. even when she's not functioning in duty hours, she represents the united states. >> let's take a look at the -- some of the first ladies, about four of them that you've featured here at the exhibit and talk about their roles. >> wonderful. it's this way. >> before you walk into this room, though, you have a quote from first lady michelle obama where she's talking about that there's no formal job description for this unofficial role of the first lady. talk about that quote and how do you think that impacts the first lady's decision of how they go about doing this job, if you will. >> i think the quote itself really wraps up in a lot of ways what this exhibit is about. oddly, we found it very close to the end. but it sets so well in here.
because it really is an amorphous position. there is no job description. there is no official duty. each first lady remakes the job. we like to say based upon her own interests. the needs of the presidential administration. and the expectations of the american public. all of which can aid her or hinder her at any point in time. so it's a trial and error kind of thing. and each first lady has come up with her own version of the job. and yet they play off of each other. they build on each example before them and each one of them creates a new example to follow. >> there are no rules, but are there boundaries? >> there are rules, but there are boundaries. there is always a tension about how politically involved a first lady can be. that sort of, who elected you? what are you talking about when we can't see you? both i think from the public and we've read in varying books from presidential advisers themselves.
this is the person who sees them first thing in the morning and last thing at night. the last words he's going to hear. there's always an interest in whether the first lady's goals and frequently stories about whether the first lady's goals and ambitions are the same as the president's. and if they're running in sync and if she's reflecting the administration. now, most good first ladies have been able to -- many first ladies have been able to dovetail their interests with the administration's interests and really work hand in glove with the president to put forward the administration's goals with her as a part of that administration. >> we'll talk more about how these four first ladies individually walk that tight rope. but tell us why these four and what were you trying to do in this room? >> well, the four first ladies as you'll notice as you see the dates when we go through it's roughly 50 years between. we wanted to show different points in time. because we very much wanted to
show the first lady's relationship to that period and to women in that time period. edith mayo, who was my predecessor as curator and really my mentor as mirs dailies curator dill a ground breaking show on first ladies political role and public image. it really looked at the first time at the first ladies in the context of women's history and the roles played by the first ladies. so we wanted to take another step with that. and this time instead of looking at roles specifically as hostess, political partner, to look at how each different woman summed that all up and combined those roles. what they stressed. what they did. so almost case studies. we also wanted to give you a more intimate view of each one of these first ladies. the things you'll see are the kinds of things people save. be they a piece of china, a watch, a scrap of fabric. it's the kind of things that we save to remember our lives. so each of these, we call them the high boys, show memories.
like we save things in our bookcase or credenza or china cabinet. we wanted to show the things people say and link each one to a memory or tell a story. you won't come away with a full idea of this first lady but a pretty good idea what she was like. hopefully we'll learn more about her and the rest of the sisterhood. >> dolly madison, what kind of first lady was she? what does this story tell us? >> dolly madison is the first first lady to really establish the role of the political hostess. she's the friendly face of the madison administration. james madison is a serious man and shy man. dolly madison is his front. dolly madison is the person who sets up, has the parties. james is in a corner. she can have everyone coming who needs to talk to him coming to talk to him. has a wonderful environment. she stirs up support for her husband. doesn't create enemies for her
husband. and she's a real master of that -- the sort of -- it's often called the parlor politics of the time period where women are setting up their own networks of social links. that keep information flowing. dolly madison has her finger on the pulse of what's being said in washington and can bring that information back to her husband. she can bring information out to other people. she has a series of friends. she finds jobs for friends of friends. it creates a support group for her husband and for her husband's administration. >> what does her bookshelf, if you will, in this part tell us about who she is? what are some of the artifacts in there? >> some of the most amazing artifacts, i think the one that's just really resonant is that piece of burnt wood. that is a piece, a timber, burned during the war of 1812 of the white house. it came to us from a collector. but it references -- while dolly
madison didn't save it, it references dolly madison's heroism. the thing we all remember. dolly madison saved the portrait of george washington and other pieces from the white house. that she was the last one there as the british were advancing. really left just a little in front of the advancing british troops who then burst the white house. >> in 1814? >> in 1814. although we call it the war of 1812. and all that is left was the skeleton of the white house. which you can see in the graphic behind the dresses, that's a period picture of the burnt white house. >> her actions following that to keep the capital in washington. >> there was talk about moving the capital to what seemed to be a safer place. or an easier place -- something that didn't have to be rebuilt. dolly madison made it back to the capital in four days, rented the octagon house and set up shop there and proceeded to put parties back in -- to have parties again, to have gatherings and to make a statement that said, we're here. we survived, and we're staying
here. and began the rebuilding of the presidency. >> the role of women at this time and political rights for women in dolly madison's era. >> women had played possibly a looser role, one might say, during the revolution. women's rights began to be curtailed a little bit more after the revolution. a lot of people's rights were curtailed with the constitution. women don't have a legal identity apart from their husbands, married women. so they can't vote. and they don't have an independent legal standing. so they have to find parlor politics, they have to find a way to maneuver around that, to have influence within that sphere which really comes through influencing the power players. and creating these back channels and this second network that can influence things that are going on. and really keep washington moving. >> let's move on to mary lincoln. what's her story?
>> mary lincoln comes in at a very vex time. she's probably looking to someone like dolly madison and thinking this is what the first lady is supposed to be. i'm going to do this. i'm going to be a political hostess. i'm going to have this influence. i'm going to be an adviser to my husband. and a war starts, so she has to retool what she's doing now. but following this idea of dolly hads madison and the hostess, she believes she needs to show a powerful presidency, do her part to portray a powerful presidency that foreign governments should support in this war. you want to be on our side, not the confederacy side, to demonstrate to the union the government is powerful, the leader is powerful and things are progressing as they normally would. >> how did she do that? >> well, she redecked -- when they moved in, the white house was a mess. somebody compared it to a third rate hotel. so she did a lot of redecoration, rebuilding of the white house. it was considered to be very
-- a very successful redecoration. but it went over budget. she bought beautiful new china. you see it in the china section with the silk forino purple china with the arms of the united states, seal of the united states. but in wartime, this didn't go over quite as well. it was seen as being extravag t extravagant. so she retooled. instead of having larng parties she has what they called handshake days. these receptions that the public could come and see the president. but then some people criticized that because it was a little too agaltarian. poor mary couldn't win. she wanted to be and has always been an adviser to her husband. but this was a new arena and a bigger issue. he was facing larger problems. so she didn't have the contact with her husband and the influence that she wanted to have so that was a disappointment to her. although she did play a role in his re-election. she wrote letters to state
leaders to try and have them support her husband. she tried to have influence. it just wasn't the right environment for the first lady that she was desperately trying to be. >> let's talk about the dress. who made her gown? >> elizabeth kekley made that dress. elizabeth kekley was an african-american seamstress. she'd been a slave. she purchased her own freedom with money she'd make as a seamstress. she moved to washington, d.c. and set up a very successful business and she was the dress maker for maria davis who asked her to go south with them when the confederacy asked them to go to richmond. she chose not to. she interviewed for a position as mrs. lincoln's dress maker and the two became much more than client and entrepreneur. really became friends. an equal friendship to be sure. they became friends and she was mary lankincoln's closest confit
in the white house. >> some of the artifacts in the mary lincoln section. the watch. >> we talk about it with mary lincoln and mary lincoln was an active supporter of the sanitary commission to raise money for wounded soldiers. she visited hospitals. and that watch was actually won by her husband for giving the most money to a -- as a contribution to a sanitary fair. one talks about her philanthropy but also raises the image of an organizer of a fair, i need you to give money. >> anything else about mary lincoln's bookshelf that's notable? >> i think a wonderful piece of the bookshelf actually references elizabeth kekly as well. it shows their friendship. mrs. lincoln -- mrs. kekly established the contraband aid association which was to raise money and help slaves who had -- former slaves who had crossed the lines and made it to washington, d.c. mrs. lincoln gave money and supported elizabeth kekly in her efforts to do this or certainly
gave her moral support. there's a beautiful little wooden ink well that when abraham lincoln died, mrs. kekly asked for a momento of the president. mrs. lincoln gave her this ink well. there are also beautiful pieces. we all associate mary lincoln -- the stories one remembers of mary lincoln are of the elegance and spending and possessions. we do have some beautiful pieces that came through the family. a beautiful diamond and gold e namled wristwatch. china. also a scrap of fabric from the redecoration of the red room that was saved by the decorating firm. and eventually found its way to the museum. so we know -- we get a little bit of an idea of the fabric that was used in that room and what her style was. >> edith roosevelt. what was her style? >> edith roosevelt -- well, edith roosevelt retid tdid the e white house. it was at that point that the white house that we know first
came into being. edith roosevelt wanted and theodore voez velt wanted it to invoke its sort of colonial roots. so it's a very federal, formal white house. the beautiful pillars. the great entryway. the new grand staircase that she put in. it also helps to bolster -- the roosevelts brought in what's the imperial presidency. a much more regal, formal, worldwide presidency. this is when america moves into the greater world as a power. and this white house was built to command respect for that and show the power of that presidency. and mrs. roosevelt was in charge of the decoration of that white house. >> and she added a first ladies portrait gallery? >> she did. she consolidated the portraits of the first ladies. commissioned hers to be added to it and established a first ladies portrait gallery on the ground floor of the white house. >> politically, policiwise, what
is she known for? >> she's a first lady that steps away from policy. she certainly is someone that can restrain her husband and i'm sure had words to say to her husband and opinions. but she keeps very private with them. she had a young, large family. and she was concentrating on that family. she wanted time for her family and for her husband. and so she actually, we think of in a lot of ways, as one of the first managerial first ladies. someone who starts to, some say, professionallize the role. mrs. roosevelt wanted time. so she decided what things she was going to delegate to someone else. and so she has a social secretary who takes care of press. huge press interest in her family. they're great cover material and great photographs. she didn't like that prying of the press but knew she would have to accommodate them. so she and her social secretary would release certain pictures, posed pictures.
you can't do stories. you can't come in and take pictures. we will release information and we will release photographs. she sort of had the first press secretary. >> i was going to say, is that the first time that that happened? >> yes. this is the really the first time even something approaching a formal press secretary's office for the first lady. she debt galegates a lot of houd duties. she caters the food. she doesn't have the white house doing food for large event. she has the chief ushers take care of household arrangements. she knows what's going on. she approves everything. she has other people handling a lot of detail work. she concentrates on putting the white house back at the center of washington social life. over the last few presidencies, it had moved away from the white house. mrs. roosevelt with two hands seized it back into the white house and had meetings with cabinet wives to discuss social schedules to make sure nothing was impeding the white house's -- or conflicting with the white house's particular social agenda. >> what was the impact of all of
that? >> mrs. roosevelt had a control over washington that i think some of the more recent prior first ladies had not. she formalized things. she had a definite code of behavior. if you did not follow her code of behavior you didn't really exist in her washington. and she did bring a power and a grandeur back to the entertaining, the visible side of the white house that bolsters theodore roosevelt's forays into international politics and to bring power back to the presidency. >> lady bird johnson. >> lady bird johnson is one of -- i have to say, i'm from texas. lady bird johnson is one of my favorite first ladies. she is the first first lady to announce her own political -- not her own political agenda, but her own inaugural agenda.
she announces leading up to the 1965 inauguration, she goes public with her agenda for her time as first lady and will concentrate on beautification or really now what we call environmentallism. mrs. johnson was not thrilled with the word beatification but it was a doable word. she was going to concentrate on the great society. on helping her husband's efforts to promote the great society. and on working on his eventual presidential library. mrs. johnson's east wing really works with the west wing. she -- so she's doing environmental things. she's at a national park talking about the environment. we have a scarf in here that i love. and i'd never seen the connection before. but the scarf promotes the discover america program.
the discover america program is something the west wing is putting out. it's an effort to keep american tourism dollars in america. it's encouraging you to vacation and tour america. so mrs. johnson can promote that at the same time she's promoting environmentalism. >> is this all part of the great society agenda? >> yes. in a large way all of it is. it's to make a better america. an america that's more livable for all of us. it's all tied in. what your environment is like has to do with what your life is like, what your financial situation is like, what the quality of your life. so it all -- i think for her it all ties together. she's the first lady who says you have to find something to do that makes your heart sing. find the thing that makes your heart sing and follow that. >> as the first lady. >> as the first lady. life in general, but as the first lady. >> right. did she lobby for these projects? >> she did lobby. for the highway billboard act to take billboards off of national highways, mrs. johnson actually met with west wing staff and had her own call sheet of people to -- members of congress to directly call and lobby.
everybody knew that mrs. johnson had influence and mrs. johnson quietly could work behind the scenes. this was a little too far in front. and there was some backlash over that. and she, after that, retreated to a more veiled, behind-the-scenes kind of lobbying. but it's also mrs. johnson that takes the first campaign swing, solo campaign whistle stop tour. the lady bird special is a trip she takes into the south during the 1964 election campaign. lyndon johnson has signed the civil rights act. he's losing support in the south. mrs. johnson alone, obviously with a staff and companions, but makes a trip through the south stopping to speak to the public, strong arming in an oh-so-polite way governors and leaders in that state to meet with her.
and speaks to the public, saying here's my point of view. and takes some abuse from the public. and then will say, well, you've had your turn. i've listened to you. now i hope you will listen to me. knowing that southern gentlemen have to let you -- a southern je gentleman is going to have to listen to and greet and be polite to a southern lady. >> the dress. tell us how she picked the design for this. >> a wonderful dress. beautiful yellow made by john moore, texas dress designer. and it's actually, mrs. johnson, of course, the wife of a senator, the wife of a member of congress, used to do constituent tours at the smithsonian institution. she would bring people to the first ladies exhibit when she was touring them through washington. so she was very familiar with the exhibit. and she says at one point that, you know, the beautiful embroidery and the light fabrics and the beads, they're beautiful. but they won't last. so she purposely picks a dress that she thought in style and in construction would stand the test of time. so it's a beautifully simple dress.
we thank mrs. johnson because it has held up very well. >> what happens when a woman would be -- if a woman would be elected? elected president? we came close in 2008. >> we like to say when a woman is elected president. not if. we take it as a given. it's just a question of when. but it is an interesting question. people ask a lot, will we put her husband's suit in the exhibition? it takes us back to the beginning, that smithsonian definition of first lady. we'll have to wait and see who in that administration plays the role of the official hostess. the role that the first lady has played. there's no telling who that will be. will it be the husband? will it be the host in his own home? surely she'll be the hostess. who will be carrying those duties? will it be one of them? will it be a daughter? will it become a professional job? we just don't know. we're waiting to see. then to figure out what we do next in this exhibition where we take it forward.